Michelangelo Signorile does not hold back. Not then, not now.
A generation ago, he shouted down Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict XVI. In the gay magazine he worked for, he accused gossip columnist Liz Smith and her high-society friends of being “murderers” for not doing enough about AIDS. And when he was incensed at closeted public figures, he printed their telephone numbers in giant type.
Amid a modern-day plague that had killed 89,343 people across the country by 1990, Signorile believed that visibility would save lives and empower those who had been too afraid for too long. Marshalling the power of the (alternative) press, he exposed public figures whom he saw as hypocrites and became the symbol of the outing phenomenon.
Signorile’s tactics in the late 1980s and early ’90s infuriated many fellow gay-rights activists, who feared he would blow up the progress they had nurtured. He said he was simply reporting facts and exposing lies, as journalists do.
Four out of every five of those ages 18 to 29 supported same-sex marriage in 2013, according to a Washington Post-ABC poll. So did a slight majority of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents younger than 50.
Despite the tough measures, Signorile and a small band of outers helped ignite conversations across the popular culture about identity, equality and privacy that continue today. Outing, whose high point came and went in two or three years, also prodded the media to reconsider the rules of engagement when it came to public figures and their personal lives.
Five years ago, as same-sex marriage gained momentum, a relative newcomer to gay activism launched a controversial strategy to win nationwide marriage equality in one fell swoop. Like Signorile, Chad Griffin didn’t ask permission and didn’t seek forgiveness from the major gay-rights groups, which have typically built support for marriage one step at a time. Most believed the national approach was dangerous — too much, too soon.
Griffin assembled his own crew, including star lawyers Theodore Olson and David Boies, and ultimately took a challenge to California’s gay marriage ban to the U.S. Supreme Court. That nationwide effort didn’t work, but same-sex marriage was back on in California, and the case elevated the profile of the marriage-equality campaign.
Looking back, the past 25 years or so can be seen as an extraordinary generation of societal change and gay-rights activism that soon may well culminate in same-sex marriage rights for all. A cascade of change has surprised even the activists.
In the past three years, the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was repealed. President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage. And in the biggest marriage-equality victory yet, the Supreme Court struck down a core element of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as a union solely of a man and a woman and denied federal recognition of same-sex marriages conducted in states where they are legal.
“It’s breathtaking change — I don’t think there’s any change that has happened more quickly,” said Roberta Kaplan, who, collaborating with the ACLU, successfully argued against DOMA before the Supreme Court.
In that case, U.S. v. Windsor, Kaplan represented Edie Windsor, an octogenarian who had been on the hook for$363,000 in federal estate taxes after her wife died, a burden that few married heterosexuals would have to shoulder.
Since the June 2013 ruling, the pace of change has gained unprecedented velocity as lawyers filed dozens of lawsuits challenging state bans on same-sex marriage. More than 20 federal courts have found same-sex marriage bans — including Virginia’s — to be unconstitutional, or that they otherwise cannot stand. That remarkable streak finally ended in September, when a federal judge upheld Louisiana’s ban.
Any of those lawsuits, among others, might lead to the Supreme Court, which could rule as early as next summer on whether gays have a constitutional right to marry. But it’s not a done deal — both high court rulings were decided by the margin of a single justice.
“Clearly we have irrefutable momentum now for the freedom to marry,” said Evan Wolfson, a foundational leader in the marriage-equality movement who launched the advocacy group Freedom to Marry in 2003 and has worked with other gay-rights groups for decades. “We’ve transformed the landscape. It’s absolutely clear that America is ready.”
In 2004, 38 percent of respondents supported same-sex marriage, according to a Washington Post-ABC poll. Ten years later: 59 percent. And today, only a decade after Massachusetts ushered in same-sex marriage, Freedom to Marry says that nearly 44 percent of Americans live in jurisdictions that have legalized it — 19 states and the District of Columbia.
Even observers who welcome the gains often seem pleasantly puzzled: How did that happen so fast? But the changes are the result of decades of struggle, from early gay-marriage efforts in the 1970s along with AIDSand anti-discrimination activism in the 1980s and ’90s, to challenges at the Supreme Court in the new millennium. In Lawrence v. Texas, Lambda Legal, another major gay-rights group, won a huge victory in 2003,as the justices struck down state laws that criminalized sodomy.
Gay-rights activists — including the “Let’s get this done NOW!” camp and those who proceeded more methodically in order to build support — kept pushing. In a way, Mike Signorile and Chad Griffin framed a remarkable generation, each representing a different historical moment, Signorile at the start and Griffin at the close. Here are their stories.
After graduating from Syracuse University’s journalism school, Signorile (“Senior-EL-li”) worked in public relations in New York City, planting gossip in newspaper columns, and wrote a night-life column. He learned that columnists and “publicists like me, [who] were all gay, too,” were knowingly portraying gay celebrities as straight.
“It became crystal clear to me that we have to break this logjam,” Signorile recalled. “We have no visibility, people are dying, and this whole world is just closeting everything.”
In 1987, six years after the “gay cancer” surfaced in the United States, two men in a bar persuaded him to attend a meeting of ACT UP, an AIDS activist group that had recently formed. A new life opened up for Signorile.
ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was unhesitatingly confrontational, demanding that federal regulators and drug companies get AIDS medications on the market much faster than they were. Activists protested in churches, drew sidewalk chalk outlines representing people who had died of AIDS, and monkey-wrenched in general. Within a year, Signorile led the group’s media committee, culminating in a 1988 protest outside the Food and Drug Administration in Bethesda.
Thirty-eight percent of respondents supported same-sex marriage in 2004, according to a Washington Post-ABC poll. Ten years later: 59 percent.
The activism was “mind-blowing ... and it transformed me,” Signorile said. “Suddenly, everything you look at is through this lens.” Today, Signorile draws a direct line between AIDS activism and the same-sex marriage movement, “in terms of ... let’s demand full equality.”
As he agitated and organized, he sometimes headed to Wall Street to work in his father’s croissant shop. He needed the money. And at 27, he hadn’t fully come out to his parents, he wrote in his 1993 book “Queer in America.” He was pretty sure his mother had known since he was a boy on Staten Island, but she got angry when he delivered the news. It took the two a year to come to terms.
An ACT UP friend asked if he’d like to join a new gay magazine. OutWeek launched in 1989 and lived to inform and provoke. Signorile became the features editor and wrote a “Gossip Watch” column. In no time, he was lambasting those who dithered as gay men were dying.
Signorile was condemned, often by fellow activists, as a bully and a fascist. Outing is “immoral, it’s McCarthyism, it’s terrorism, it’s cannibalism, it’s beneath contempt,” writer Fran Lebowitz despaired then.
Signorile’s first major outing seemed unlikely: Malcolm Forbes, the bon vivant tycoon and magazine publisher, whom gossip columnists had portrayed as a romantic partner of Elizabeth Taylor. He died unexpectedly in 1990, at 70.
Weeks later, Signorile’s OutWeek cover story on “The Secret Gay Life of Malcolm Forbes” hit newsstands. People “need to know that the great capitalist of the 20th century was gay,” he recalled. Several men had told him of their sexual experiences with Forbes, who had divorced several years earlier and had adult children.
Do people need to know? That debate has never ended. For many, being outed risked careers, and more. But say a reporter knows a closeted politician who voted against gay rights. Does that make it valid — or even an ethical imperative — to out him or her?
The Forbes story made a splash. Several major newspapers wrote trend pieces about outing — often with names not attached, which Signorile saw as a cop-out. A New York Times story published about a month after Forbes died referred only to “a famous businessman who had recently died.”The Washington Post mentioned the gay angle in a gossip column, citing a biographer who was writing a book on Forbes.
In 1991, Signorile wrote a cover story on gays in the military, with a twist. He had gotten a tip: Pete Williams, an assistant secretary of defense and chief spokesman of Operation Desert Storm, was gay. As the story was set to publish, OutWeek died, so it ran in the Advocate, another gay magazine.
Dick Cheney, then the secretary of defense, had worked for years with Williams, a civilian. Pressed by reporters, Cheney called the notion that gays were a security risk — a key reason cited for the military’s gay ban — “a bit of an old chestnut” and refused to ask the unnamed Williams to resign. To many, Cheney’s remarks highlighted the hypocrisy that the ban had damaged thousands of careers, but it didn’t apply to “a Pentagon official.”
But to Signorile, the response wasdifferent from the one he got with the Forbes story. The Post and the Times still didn’t name Williams, but some gay leaders who had opposed outing supported this one, and newspapers editorialized against the gay ban, Signorile said. Suddenly, it seemed to him that outing was making more sense to more people.
Williams, now a correspondent for NBC News in Washington, recently declined to comment.
About this time, Signorile grew tired of “screaming and yelling in capital letters.” In all, he says he outed about 20 people, including Jodie Foster, David Geffen, Richard Chamberlain and Liz Smith, each of whom eventually came out on their own.
Working for the Advocate and Out magazine in the following years, Signorile focused on stories “not just about somebody’s gay, [but] the larger political issue,’’ such as a same-sex marriage push in Hawaii in the early ’90s.
Some outing activists kept it up, nailing up posters of people they thought were closeted. And U.S. Rep. Steve Gunderson, a Republican from rural Wisconsin, had the unwanted distinction of being outed from both sides of the partisan divide.
Gunderson was elected to Congress in 1980, at 29. About a decade later, an outing activist threw a drink in Gunderson’s face at a bar, reportedly because he hadn’t endorsed a gay-rights measure. Some newspapers picked up the story, and the activist chalked up a “win.”
A few years later, U.S. Rep. Bob Dornan, a conservative Republican from California, proclaimed from the House floor, as he opposed a gay-related bill, that Gunderson “has a revolving door on his closet.”
Besides the shock of being sabotaged, Gunderson said there was another problem: He had already told his family, staff and “generally” the public that he was gay. “I was in a relationship,” he said. “It was known. I attended gay-rights dinners.”
Twenty years later, the former politician lives in Alexandria and still opposes outing. But he added: “It’s very difficult for me in 2014 to have sympathy for everyone who’s gay and has chosen to not say anything about it.”
So how does outing stack up, a quarter of a century later? Larry Gross, a University of Southern California professor who wrote the 1993 book “Contested Closets: The Politics and Ethics of Outing,” noted that outings didn’t ruin lives, as some had warned. “On the contrary, most ... said they felt better than ever,” he said. And the media, he added, moved “closer to including sexuality in stories where it was relevant.”
Richard Mohr, a retired professor at the University of Illinois who wrote “Gay Ideas: Outing and Other Controversies,” believes outing’s impact was slight, though it succeeded at “stirring the pot and getting people talking about it.”
Does Signorile regret any invectives hurled long ago? He says no. “I think it worked for the time,” he said. “In New York, it worked.”
Chad Griffin always knew he was a policy guy.
After volunteering on Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign as a teenager, he flew on the media charter plane to the White House at 19. He thought he’d soon be back at Ouachita Baptist University in his home town of Arkadelphia, Ark.
Didn’t happen. He worked at the White House for almost two years as a press officer, under Dee Dee Myers. He later graduated from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service.
Griffin, now 41, met Rob Reiner at the White House as Reiner worked on the movie “The American President.” They became friends, and Reiner eventually asked Griffin to launch Reiner’s charitable foundation.
Nearly 44 percent of Americans live in jurisdictions that have legalized same-sex marriage — 19 states and the District of Columbia, according to the advocacy group Freedom to Marry.
Griffin moved to Los Angeles, and later came out to friends there, at 27 or 28. His mother came next. She already knew. “Did you think I would love you any less?” she asked.
“I came out late in life,” Griffin said. “Growing up in Arkansas, I didn’t know I ever knew another gay person ... I just learned to cope, and to navigate.”
Over the years, he co-founded a political consultancy, strategizing on such issues as early childhood education and stem-cell research. Brad Pitt, who helped build houses in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, was a client. Life was good in California.
Griffin didn’t consider himself a hard-core activist, though he “had attended [gay-related] events.” But in the final weeks before Californians were to vote in a ballot initiative on same-sex marriage in 2008, he raised money and produced pro-marriage TV ads.
Voters approved the marriage ban. And everything started to change for Griffin. Months later, he co-founded the American Foundation for Equal Rights to fund a federal challenge to the ban, known as Proposition 8.Most notably, the fledgling AFER hired Olson, a Washington lawyer who is a Republican, and Boies, a Democrat. The two had squared off in Bush v. Gorein 2000.
The ultimate goal was for the Supreme Court to strike down marriage bans across the country. But gay-rights groups feared that if the Proposition 8 case (Hollingsworth v. Perry) made it to the high court, it wouldn’t have enough backing among the justices, and their prospects would be doomed for years to come.
“Frankly, it was a slap in the face of a lot of the gay civil-rights groups,’’ said Nan Hunter, a former ACLU gay-rights lawyer and now an associate dean at Georgetown University Law Center. Referring to Griffin’s celebrity connections, she added that “it felt to me a bit like ‘The Entertainment Industry Goes to the Supreme Court.’ ”
The controversy later cooled, with the two sides eventually collaborating on the case, though the philosophical divide continues for some.
Griffin believes that creating a teachable moment is one of the most important things he can do. So when a lower court declined to release video testimony of the Proposition 8 trial, AFER co-sponsored “8,” a play that reenacted the arguments.
In a staged reading posted on YouTube, Pitt played the judge. George Clooney was Boies; Martin Sheen portrayed Olson. Matthew Morrison of “Glee’’ and Jamie Lee Curtis were among the “plaintiffs.” The drama, stocked with lesser luminaries, has been staged at colleges across the country.
“The power of the entertainment medium ... really goes unmatched,” Griffin said, adding that “it moves the needle, and also saves lives that you’ll never know.”
One day in June 2013, the Supreme Court ruled on Edie Windsor’s challenge to DOMA and on the Proposition 8 case. In the second case, the majority concluded that proponents of the California ban lacked legal standing, and the ruling of a lower court was restored. Same-sex marriage was back on again in the Golden State, but other states were not affected.
In the DOMA case, Kaplan, a corporate litigator at a New York law firm, noted that Justice Anthony M. Kennedy used the word “dignity” at least 10 times in his majority opinion in regard to gay people and their relationships.
“It seems to me that once the Supreme Court has said this, in a lot of cases it’s all over but the shouting,” Kaplan said. She married her partner in Toronto in 2005, as Edie Windsor had a couple of years earlier.
Kennedy has an interesting judicial history on gay issues. As the New York Times has reported, he heard five gay-rights cases as a federal appellate court judge in the 1970s and ’80s, and didn’t once support the gay-rights cause. But since ascending to the Supreme Court in 1988, he has become the high court’s most influential voice on the issue, after writing majority opinions on three historic gay-rights cases.
And another such case could be around the corner. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has said she believes she and her colleagues will rule on whether there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage by June 2016, if not next term.
So what caused the cultural shift?
Some note the country’s growing diversity.
Others note the millennial generation. Four out of every five of those ages 18 to 29 supported same-sex marriage in 2013, according to a Washington Post-ABC poll. So did a slight majority of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents younger than 50.
Hunter cited factors “ranging from the years that those legal-rights groups spent cultivating the ground ... to the impact of the media, to a decline of institutional religion, to much broader shifts in family structure,” and the Obama administration’s leadership.
Even now, Griffin, who leads the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s biggest gay-rights group, says, “The most important thing we can do is to come out.” Over the decades, that call has helped shape a culture in which most people know someone who is openly gay. And that has changed everything.
These days, Signorile hosts “The Michelangelo Signorile Show” on SiriusXM Progress 127 in New York and is editor-at-large of Huffington Post Gay Voices.
On most days, his show includes a gay news segment, along with the issues of the day. You can tell he enjoys it. In June, he mugged in a photo with Michelle Obama at a White House reception for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Signorile, 53, has been with his partner, a college professor, for 19 years. The couple married at City Hall last year, with four guests attending: each man’s parents.
Griffin, known as a gutsy and canny strategist, was chosen to lead the Human Rights Campaign in 2012. Some were surprised because the Washington-based group had at first opposed Griffin’s challenge of Proposition 8.
Griffin is going big — again. In recent months, the HRC has launched a $9.5 million program to advance gay rights in Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas, where he had grown up in the closet.
Erica Johnston is a local news editor at The Washington Post.
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A Long Quest
Police raid the Stonewall Inn in New York City, causing a riot and the launch of the modern gay-rights movement.
After being refused a marriage license, two men file suit in Minnesota. The state’s high court rules that marriage is limited to a man and a woman.
1993 Hawaii’s Supreme Court rules that the lack of same-sex marriage rights is discriminatory. But as the case progresses, a backlash and an amendment to the state constitution mean that the right to marry must wait for 20 more years.
Vermont’s legislature is the first to establish civil unions.
2004 Massachusetts becomes the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, following a judicial ruling. In the same year, 11 states pass same-sex marriage bans.
Voters in Maryland, Maine and Washington state are the first to approve same-sex marriage at the ballot box.
The Supreme Court could decide at any time to accept a case that could determine whether there is a constitutional right for same-sex marriage.